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Compositional Process?

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Guest soundscore76

I've had a few composition teachers and of course they have a few different opinions about the process of beginning a new piece. One professor believes that every piece should have a "process" that should stay basically the same every time a new piece is started. This process mainly deals with writing my intentions for the entire piece in words on paper (keys, form, themes, modulations, candenzas, et cetera). Then follow everything that I had written down for the formation of the piece.

Another professor states that a piece should just grow from a germ organically and just become whatever happens from my themes and ideas without too much preparation... just kind of letting it "happen."

I feel the former method has some advantages, but maybe be a little too stringent. The latter makes me feel like I'm giving up too much control (?) to the process. What are your opinions and methods of appreoaching a new piece? Thanks!

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I've found that I usually use a combination of the two. I usually like to have a presence of a plan when I first start like your first method. From there I start experimenting with until I found one that fits the piece, unless I already had one. I something else evolves while I'm writing, I try to incorporate it or set it aside for something else.

I guess, for me, writing is a combination of your two methods. Try to stick to your original plan if you can, but if something brilliant forms during the process, don't feel afraid to try that approach as well.

I also know a lot of people, myself included, who find it easier to write new melodies or try different chord progressions while they're experimenting on their main instrument.

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It sure is different for me for different songs/compositions. I've written with paper and pen, improvising on piano, guitar, bass and even ukelele, with music software and sequencers whirring, on the back of a camel in the Sahara, while driving and singing into a hand held recorder, sitting on a front porch with friends...I love to hear about other peoples' methods as they often open up new approaches for me.

My latest work, slipping into obscurity on the Major Works forum ;), is 28 minutes long, but for the most part I composed each movement in the order it eventually appears. I just did this by playing into my sequencer, finishing a movement and then trying to intuit what should come next. I only changed my mind once, ultimately reversing the order of the 1st and second movements.

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I usually spend about 1, sometimes 2 or 3 hours a day at the piano just improvising and figuring out things bouncing around inside my head. If anything really nice shows up I immediately write it down (I also have a little pocketbook of staff paper for when I'm travelling and something just pops into my head.) At the end of each "session" at the keyboard I look through all the stuff I wrote down and see if any of it fits together nicely/fits with other notes from previous days. It's a pretty tedious and sometimes extremely unproductive way of going about it, but I'm primarily a performer (double-bass) and only recently started looking at comp as a hobby.

Of the two methods you mentioned, I'm a bigger fan of the "organic" method. Much more my style, especially since I lack a lot of the tools for formal structure, since I've never taken lessons.

An interesting side-note: I don't know if any of you are familiar with the work of R. Murray Schafer (if you don't know his work, GET ON IT!). He's one of Canada's most prominent current composers, and he's a truly incredible musician; his work is beautiful, to say the least. I recently saw the National Arts Centre Orchestra (a-list orchestra form ottawa, where I'm from originally) premiere his latest piece entitled Dream-E-Scape (granted, a horrible title for a piece.) In the program notes, Schafer explains that to compose the piece he would simply sit down and write every day for 26 days (I think it was 26), taking very little notice of what he had written previously. Needless to say, the piece WANDERED all over the place, with very little continuity or obvious form. It was incredibly interesting however, hearing all these incredible ideas strewn together in a contionously changing set of texture and melody; and every once in a while a certain motive or moment would pop up that was familiar, as if the composer had reminded himself of it. It was a great piece of music (and quite nicely performed). Do any of you know of any similar pieces to Schafer's?

Well that was ramble and a half...

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Taken from → Music Composition Weblog ←

8.1. There are at least three models for how composers see their roles:

1. Master of the Universe model (AKA the "Control Freak"). Some composers see themselves as "masters" or "controllers" of everything they compose. They make a plan for the piece, and they use their skill and mastery to make the music follow the plan.

2. In Touch with the Universe model. Other composers adopt a more mystical approach; there are countless potential musical ideas floating around out there, waiting to be brought to life by a composer attuned to them. This kind of composer sees her role as the medium through which some of the infinite thematic possibilities can be given the spark of life.

3. Sometimes the Master, Sometimes the Mystic model. This is perhaps where most composers find themselves. Sometimes a person may feel a sense of mastery over their craft, while other times they feel like they are caught up in something bigger, like riding a wave, hoping to go along with that wave for as long as they can.

Interestingly, the same points of view can be found in different people's attitudes towards parenting; some people seemingly attempt to plan their babies' entire lives before they are even born, while others pay close attention to the growing child in order to try to learn what kind of person they were sent by the universe (or God, or Vishnu, or the Great Mother Goddess, etc.), and try to serve as facilitators who help the child become the person that s/he was meant to be.

8.2. Basically, how you see your role as a composer determines the way in which you proceed.

1. If you see yourself as the Master of your music, you are likely to have made a plan before beginning; when your idea has run its course, you simply follow your plan and move to the next stage.

2. Those who adopt a more mystical model might choose to listen to the musical idea over and over to o determine where IT "wants" to go, or if it has said all it needs to say.

8.3. I happen to think both approaches have merit. The value of starting with a plan, even a loose one, cannot be overstated. It is also a very good idea to listen repeatedly to the music at every step of the plan to see where it wants to go; you almost certainly will have to change the plan as you go.

8.4. Sometimes (frequently, in my case!) we get stuck because our composition is not turning into the kind of piece we had in mind when we started. Perhaps we had intended to write a fanfare, and we discover we are actually writing something with a more subdued, soulful character. Or perhaps we were asked to write a short, relatively easy work for a friend, and what we end up writing is long-ish and rather challenging.

There is no simple solution for this, but options include

1. Stopping the piece you are writing and begin again,

2. Continuing with the piece you are writing until it is finished, and perhaps then begin a new composition that is more in keeping with the original plan, or

3. Determining where your plan began to go awry, and 'fixing' it from that point forwards.

I have tried all three, and your options often depend on other factors, such as an imminent deadline, how far along you are in your composition (if you're not very far into your piece, then option (1) would might be your best choice; if you're almost finished, then (2) would be more feasible, for example), the purpose your music is meant to have (if writing for film, for example, you don't have the luxury of option (2); you have to evoke the mood or character that would best fit the scene, and if that's not happening, then you have to keep at it until it does), etc.

8.5. Getting stuck is common, so perhaps the most important thing to remember is that it is a normal part of the creative process, so try not to make too much of it when it happens!

8.6. Sometimes, the solution(s) you come up with to being stuck end up being the the most inspired part of your composition. It may sound corny, but it's true:

Challenges = Opportunities for inspired solutions!

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It is all about balance.

Overly theoretical and structured runs the risk of becoming boring or tedious.

Overly free and unstructured runs the risk of devolving into chaos and randomness.

Neither is a particularly good thing in my opinion.

Personally I start without a plan. Normally by the time I have the materially for the first section, I know pretty well where this piece is heading, and how it should probably finish.

But that is general. For example:

The first section, big and and dramatic use of the main motive.

Second section a quite and brooding section which gets progressively 'angrier' and ends up exploding back into the original idea.

ut

I normally have that much in my head once I have started writing, but I may still not have any idea about how those sections will sound. Sometimes the music will develop, other times, I find it helps to write the next section so I have somewhere to work towards.

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Nicola is right, I've noted many "starters" worry themsleves too much on "how to composer" or "How is the way to do it" .... like they were looking for a method to write a Mahler Symphony as they "Opus 1" . That's very unlikely. If someone write his first work (or one of the firsts) and that work is "not so good", there is nothing wrong with it, there is nothing to be ashamed of.

You own works will tell you what you've done write and what you've done wrong, (if you check them with humility)....

... Don't seek for an "Owner's Manual" of composition..... with the time you'll find the way, and you could even invent a new composition method... you own one.

(Nothing of I said means "advises" are not welcomed by other users.)

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Well, seeing that the thread starter mentioned having had "a few composition teachers", I doubt soundscore76 is talking about a "first work" here, and nobody really asked for the "right way to compose".

Certainly, the main thing is what you write and not necessarily how you get there, but that doesn't mean the work process is irrelevant. Sometimes the way a composer goes about creating a new piece can even be a core aspect of his work, and even if it isn't, it certainly influences the music in some way. So I don't think it hurts discussing it.

I used to write a lot just intuitively, but as soon as I had to work on a larger/bigger piece, I simply felt overwhelmed by all the little decisions, so I only composed extremely short pieces. This led me more and more to a thoroughly planned and very structured way of writing, since only by doing so I felt I could still have enough control over my compositions, without either falling into unquestioned habits and cliches, or blind randomness.

This means it now usually takes me a -lot- of time until I even write the first note, just tossing around my ideas until I know exactly what I want, then planning structures etc. until I feel ready to actually write the piece (which then usually goes rather fast).

Once I start writing however my plans and ideas always begin to shift somewhat, and I may even move quite far from my original conceptions. I don't mind that at all, as long as it's still in line with my core ideas for that piece. Actually, I sometimes even encourage it, so I don't get too stuck on one track. But it's still important for me to have that original plan in the back of my head, somewhat like an anchor, which keeps me focused even if I diverge a lot from the original concept.

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I would say,

Mixing the methods of one and two are better.

Every professors I've met follows the first method mostly.

I find for writing shorter pieces, the second method is better.

For longer pieces, i would say the first one.

This is what all my profs. recommended/ordered :whistling:

I guess they want me to take FULL CONTROL of the piece not the other way around. But then, the careful planning is already taking control of "me". But then again, I'm writing the plans. However, I'm bounded my plans.

I don't know....:toothygrin:

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I think there is much of "discovering" on composition, and that will happen through the time, while writing works...is like the painter discovering color techniques or shadows, maybe an older person could teach those things but can be discovered by oneself paying attention...

I understand sometimes you just don't know what to write or how to continue, and that's when the doubts appeared, hesitating on those "decisions" (mostly in Orchestral works of considerable length)... but must continue any way, and then after some time you can realize how good or bad were those "decisions" (about everything, Harmony, Instrumentation etc...) and avoid desperate, anxiety, hopeless, because most of the time the learning can not be rushed,... like a thread I saw saying something like this: "I have the staves paper, now what ?" ... well ... is a really difficult question.

I realize most of us have learned in different ways, compose in different ways, think in different ways, but all those "differences" are inside the huge Composition World.

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